Digital Journal – Does It Fit The Photographer’s Needs?

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Start the broken record:  A Journal is perhaps a photographer’s most important tool.  You all hear it from me several times a year.  I’ve written about it before.  Hell, I’ve probably linked that article about a dozen times each month.  I don’t have memory problems…I really do think it’s that important to carry a journal.  You need to jot down your field notes to understand a shot.  You need a place to stick ideas and so on.  But up until this point, I’m always talking about my coveted Moleskine – and with good reason.  To be honest, there’s nothing bad I could say about my favorite brand.  But last month, I was posed with an interesting rebuttal:  A journal takes up space in your bag. What?  It’s tiny!  How can one not find space for it?  But leaving space and storage discussions for another day, I got to thinking.  Is there a way to eliminate the journal and keep all of its benefits?

The answer:  Digital Journal.

Truth be told, most of us carry some sort of electronic device with us everywhere these days – be it a smart phone, a tablet or even a high end MP3 player.  So lets lend a tiny bit of credibility to the person who made the space comment earlier and admit that it might not be necessary to carry a journal when you’re already carrying a digital device that could fill it’s purpose.  I’m talking about a Digital Journal, perhaps an application that is available for your phone or device.  Personally, I carry a Samsung Galaxy S Captivate – an Android phone – which is more than capable of handling my menial tasks of note taking.  A few minutes browsing in the marketplace and I found a few apps that could do just what I needed.  So for the last several weeks, I’ve been experimenting with a specific piece of software called Evernote.  There are other programs similar, but Evernote has served me well.  Evernote has a lot of advantages over my traditional stationary means.  I’ll discuss all of those benefits, of course, but first I’d like to tell you a little about Evernote.

What Is Evernote?

Evernote is basically a digital journal that is accessible from anywhere using a large number of devices:  iPhone, iPod Touch, Android Phones, Tablets, even your desktop.  You can install it on multiple devices and keep them synchronized, so long as you have access to the internet.  For example, you can write a note on your Android Phone and then access it from your Desktop Computer to see what you wrote.  But you’re not limited to just writing notes.  You can record data, clip from web pages, save web links…you can even take snapshots.  Herein lies the benefits for photographers.  Need to take notes on a setup?  Why waste time drawing it out…take a snap shot with your phone and jot down a few thoughts attached to the snapshot.  Now it’s super easy to remember things.

Organization is of course an important element.  You can organize notes into different Journals to keep things separate.  For example, I have a journal dedicated to Shutter Photo which includes anything from important links to article ideas.  I also have one dedicated just to my photography.  Actually, I have two journals for my photography:  One for my setup notes, behind the scenes if you will.  The other is for ideas, shooting locations, etc.  I used to keep a list of ideas in a single note, but I later found it much easier to place each idea in its own note complete with setup concepts and details that I’ve thought through.  Everything you enter into Evernote is indexed and searchable, so having too many notes isn’t a problem.  You can even search without providing a specific journal to search.

It’s important to make it painfully obvious that Evernote is not just a note taking system.  It’s not just a notepad where you jot stuff down only to be forced to find it later.  Evernote will catalog and store data on every bit of information and media you enter into the program.  It will organize everything for you, you can tag items and you can of course edit any item from any platform.  As a bonus, Evernote will keep all of your platform installations in sync.  That means I don’t have to pull out my device nor do I have to make a conscious effort to synchronize the device.  I can just refresh from the cloud and see ever item I worked on.  For that matter, you can even collaborate between users or add notebooks from websites and services like Fuel Your Photography (from the Fuel Network). Everything is searchable as well – either by keyword search or by a drill-down approach where you can find things by specific file attributes such as creation date, attachment type and so on.  It really is a great piece of productivity software.

Evernote vs. Moleskine:  The Pros and Cons

So clearly the root of this discussion is whether or not a Digital Journal system like Evernote could truly replace my old friend, the Moleskine.  Below, I’ve generated a pros and cons list outlining the key points of such a system as compared to the traditional handwritten journal.

Pros (Advantage Evernote)

  • Utilizes a device you’re probably already carrying.  And yes, it’s cross-platform.
  • Access from anywhere.  It synchronizes between your home computer, your phone and whatever other device you might use.  You can even browse your notebooks on Evernote’s web interface.
  • You’re not limited to simple text notes.  You can add audio, photos, web links and so on.
  • Quickly make field notes.  This is someone related to the previous point, but it deserves a separate line item from a photographer’s perspective.  Being able to take a photo of your setup in the field and enter it into your journal is a huge benefit.  No longer will you have to decipher your less-than-adequate drawings
  • Evernote indexes and helps organize your notes for you making searches much easier.
  • Evernote is rooted in the cloud, so if you lose your device, you can still recover your journal later on.
  • Gain inspiration and wisdom through shared or public journals (eg: Fuel Your Photography, a journal dedicated to our craft).

Cons (Advantage Moleskine)

  • You’re locked into a specific piece of software.  What happens if Evernote goes belly-up and you’re left high and dry without a system?  How much would you lose?
  • There is no internal sketching mechanism.  You can sketch things using another app, create and import as an image…but that’s a waste of time and it slows you down.
  • If your device is on the fritz or you’re short on battery life, you’re out of luck:  You won’t be able to use the program.
  • Ernest Hemingway, a big fan of Moleskine, is unimpressed by your entering of data into the phone.  You just won’t look as stylish as you would with a pencil and a Moleskine.

Final Score:  7 to 4, Evernote Wins

(And we even counted that silly point about Hemingway.)

Final Thoughts

So it would seem that I have very little argument against the digital journal.  A digital journal, Evernote in my case, seems to truly meet or exceed my desires when it comes to photography.  I expect that I will continue to use Evernote in growing regularity as time passes.  I’m already amazed at how much I use it now – it is one of the most used applications on my phones (it’s even ahead of Angry Birds).  Will I ever get rid of the Moleskine?  I’m not sure at this point.  I’d like to thing I would converge, but the tiny leather journal is like an old friend.  For as many reasons that would support Evernote’s rise to the throne, it’s very difficult to change your habits.  But I expect that I might be able switch entirely over to a digital journal in the near future.  Perhaps the biggest reason holding me back right now is the idea that I could lose everything if Evernote were to suddenly go out of business or change formats.  The journal is unchanging and safe.  That’s a hard thing to look past.

What about you?  Have you had any experiences – good or bad – when it comes to digital journals?  What sort of benefits and/or flaws have you found?  I have only been using this for a little over a month, so I’m sure there are aspects I’ve missed.  Help me fill in the gaps.  If you would like to discuss any of these items, please feel free to comment.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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